Transgender athletes have to keep fighting for their space in sport

Transgender athletes have to keep fighting for their space in sport

'I want to be the person, the role model, the mirror I wish I had when I was younger.'

By Chris Mosier for CBC Sports
May 1, 2019

This piece was originally posted in May of 2019, but we are revisiting it for our Sunday Read series.

Growing up, sport was how I connected to others and to my sense of self.

It was the way I made friends and found community. I distinctly remember feeling this way at the age of five, playing co-ed tee-ball with my uncle as coach. There was something special, magical even, about being on a team.

The validation I received as an athlete continued into my high school days, when I was a three-sport all-conference athlete in volleyball, basketball, and softball. Even though I didn’t fit in with my classmates at school, I was loved and appreciated on the court and field because I was a great teammate, leader, and player.

Chris Mosier is a Team USA member in duathlon. (Photo submitted by Chris Mosier) Chris Mosier is a Team USA member in duathlon. (Photo submitted by Chris Mosier)

Sports helped me feel at home. Very few places other than sports felt like they were meant for me. My struggles — or I should say, other people’s struggles with me — began at an early age. I was confident in myself as a young person, but more and more outside voices from classmates, teachers, coaches, and others told me I did not fit in, and the way I expressed myself was wrong. But in a uniform, none of this mattered. I was just like everyone else, and oftentimes, better.

Today, as a member of Team USA in duathlon (think of it as triathlon’s sibling; it’s a run/bike/run event), I still find sport is where I feel most at home, both in the world and in my own skin. As a transgender man, this has been a journey of ups and downs, wins and losses, and making my own path. 

I was assigned female at birth and I played girls and women’s sports for over two decades. But I never felt like a girl. To be honest, I don’t even know what that means; but I didn’t feel like I was in tune with my peers. People would tell me, “little girls don’t skateboard.” I liked skateboarding, and I was told I was a little girl, so I didn’t get it. I didn’t know what it meant to be a girl, or how I was doing it wrong.


Finding myself

Through the turbulence of not fitting in, sport was perhaps the most important part of my life, but when it came time to play college sports, I backed out on my dream. I made excuses — from a desire to excel academically to needing to work to pay for school — but the real reason was that I didn’t want to be on a women’s team. I didn’t know I would identify as a transgender man. In fact, at that time I didn’t really know what “transgender” meant, but I felt a growing sense of discomfort in being identified as a woman.

I made myself so busy that I didn’t have the time to think about identity. I continued to play intramural sports, anything that was co-ed, and worked out on my own for fitness, but I missed the connections I made with teammates and the dedication, persistence, and drive that fueled my soul while playing sports.

As I came to notice my discomfort in my own skin and my growing unease with being called “she” and “her” in public, I used sport as a way to connect with, and in some ways manipulate my body to make it feel like a more comfortable home. To be clear, I never felt like I was born into or trapped in the wrong body — that is the experience of some trans folks, but it was not how I would describe my relationship to my body. There were simply some parts I felt uncomfortable with, and I thought if I could build some muscle and slim down in certain areas, I would feel better in my skin. So I started lifting weights and running to exert some agency over my body, which at times felt out of my control.

After college, I began running and racing, working my way up from four-mile races to a10k, half marathons to a marathon, and then an ultra marathon. I felt satisfied trying to push myself, to see how far my body could go. After running a 60k race, I questioned what would be next. I bought a bike, committed to teaching myself how to swim, and signed up for my first triathlon. I won my category in that race and decided I was a triathlete. I was flooded with feelings that this would be my redemption; I thought it might be possible to fulfill my athletic dreams as an adult. But there was a new problem: I felt embarrassed to tell other people about my result because it was in the female category.

At this moment it became painfully clear to me something would have to give. I could either continue to pursue sport and see if I could be a successful female triathlete or I could pursue transition and publicly become the person I always felt like I was inside.

Chris Mosier speaks to CBC Sports' Anastasia Bucsis for the podcast Player's Own Voice.

Difference between male and female trans athletes

When I was considering coming out as a transgender man, I didn’t see athletes who looked like me. I didn’t see any transgender men competing against men, and definitely none at a high level, which is what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure if it would be possible to compete with men, simply because I had never seen it done.

Let’s pause on that last thought: there’s a lot to consider. Visibility is important. Had I seen a trans man competing with men, I would have had a much easier time seeing myself in that role. We all look for mirrors, reflections of ourselves in the places we want to be. Seeing someone else, knowing it is possible, can make all the difference.

Mosier, who competes against men, says transgender women face more scrutiny. (Chris Mosier/Facebook) Mosier, who competes against men, says transgender women face more scrutiny. (Chris Mosier/Facebook)

But it wasn’t just about not seeing someone like me in sport. I was raised and socialized female, and even as a strong female athlete, I was led to believe that anyone assigned female at birth would never be competitive against men. This sexism is part of the fabric of sport — the idea that women are second-class competitors, unable to hang with men. And not just elite men. We see this in sexist comments online, where keyboard warriors say their high school team could take on the US Soccer Women’s National Team, or that a local rec league player could take on any player in the WNBA. In North America, people are raising young girls and women to believe anyone assigned male at birth is automatically bigger, faster, stronger than anyone assigned female at birth.

I struggle with this as a trans man, because I do not identify as a woman. This is not because there is anything wrong with being a woman, but because that’s not who I am.  It is important for me to note the gender inequality and sexism in sport. While I have transitioned into privilege, I have also lived the experience and I know it negatively impacts everyone.

As a trans man who is a male athlete, I am not seen as a threat. This is an advantage in many ways — it has helped me avoid outright discrimination, and allowed me to be a driving force for policy change for trans athletes. In 2015, I challenged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) policy on transgender athletes, which resulted in a change to the IOC policy.

As a trans man competing with men, I have faced a fraction of the discrimination transgender women face. Recently, tennis star and LGBTQ icon Martina Navratilova argued in The Sunday Times that transgender women should not be allowed to participate in women’s sport. In both her op-ed and her very active Twitter stream, Navratilova insists trans women will spell the end of women’s sport, and must be stopped at all costs.


Dangerous message

Navratilova’s message is that trans women are not women and are a threat to others. This is not only false, but hurtful to the trans community, and particularly threatening to the safety of transgender women — a group that already faces discrimination, harassment, and violence.

Navratilova’s idea is not just wrong; it is hurtful to progress we’ve made in understanding trans identity. The words are especially damaging coming from an icon within the LGBTQ community. South Dakota lawmakers recently invoked Navratilova’s statements as they attempted to pass harmful and dangerous legislation against transgender youth.

Former tennis star Martina Navratilova has been outspoken against transgender women athletes. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images) Former tennis star Martina Navratilova has been outspoken against transgender women athletes. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

We learn so much about ourselves and others through participation in sport. Dedication, perseverance, leadership, communication and more come with sport. To deny a group of people these experiences is discrimination.

I am not the first transgender athlete to compete in sport, and many others have come out since I shared my story in 2010. Collegiate and high school athletes are competing right now in the gender with which they identify, and women’s sport is the same as it was last year. We cannot blame sexism and mysogyny in sport on the inclusion of transgender women. Trans people have existed in sport for decades, and our participation today does not spell the end of gendered sports.

The essence of Navratilova’s opinion is that we, trans people, are not real, and that our identities are neither valid nor true. This idea, however subtly or directly messaged, is what caused me to delay my transition for over a year. Even after truly understanding who I am and how to label that for others, I was terrified of a forced choice between being my authentic self and playing the sports I love. I didn’t see policies for transgender athletes and I didn’t see people like me competing.

This is why I am adamant about being out and open as a transgender athlete — I want others to know they do not have to compromise any part of their identity to do what they love. Visibility is a powerful tool for social change. I know this by the number of young people and their parents, guardians, teachers, and other adults who reach out to me each day. I want to be the person, the role model, the mirror I wish I had when I was younger.

(Top large image by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images; middle large image submitted by Chris Mosier; bottom large image by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)


Editor's note

Chris Mosier also sent along a few words to help readers better understand trans people and trans athletes:

There’s not just one way to be a transgender person, just as there is not just one way to be a man or a woman. And there is not just one way to be a transgender athlete. Some trans people make a social transition, possibly changing their name, pronouns, style of dress, haircut, or other forms of expression. Some people make a medical transition — that is, taking testosterone suppression and/or estrogen treatment, or in my case, taking testosterone. Some people have gender affirming surgery or surgeries, while many do not. Some people make a legal transition, changing their legal name or gender markers on official identification documents like a driver’s license, passport, birth certificate or other items. Trans people can do any or all of these things, plus more, and there’s no order or checklist to identify as trans. There is no linear process, and doing all of these does not make anyone more or less transgender than a person who identifies that way and has done none of these items.

There’s no one way and no right way to be a trans athlete, and rules around our participation vary from sport to sport, country to country, and depending on level of play. At most elite levels and the Olympic level, participation is open for trans men like myself to compete with men regardless of our hormone status, while participation for transgender women is based on testosterone levels.

The Chris Mosier edition

Q: The best book you've ever read? 
A: The Alchemist

Q: Best advice you ever received? 
A: Don't worry about what others think

Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called? 
A: Hungry at 3 a.m.: The Chris Mosier story

Q: What word or phrase do you over use? 
A: 'Awesome'

Q: What is a skill you wish you had? 
A: Being able to speak every language

Q: What's something no one would guess about you? 
A: I love Pokemon Go

Q: What scares you? 
A: Karaoke

Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the 6 people you'd invite?
A: Oprah, Neil Patrick Harris, Gary Vaynerchuk, David Goggins, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Diana Nyad

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: When parents tell me 'Thank You' for being a role model to their child

Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish?
A: Make the Olympic Trials for Tokyo 2020

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